Catholic Liberal Arts Education - What’s It Good For?

Inaugural Symposium Explores Its Value  

University of San Diego President Mary Lyons offered her insights as an education leader at both secular and Catholic colleges.Tens of thousands of students have chosen a Saint Mary’s College education since the school first opened its doors in 1863, and many alumni heap praise on the education they’ve received here. Which begs the question: What is it that makes a Catholic liberal arts education distinct, and even desirable? And is it standing the test of time and answering the needs of the latest generation of SMC students?

An Inaugural Symposium held on October 10 as part of the celebration of the inauguration of President James A. Donahue as the 29th president of Saint Mary’s explored these questions and more, opening up a wide-ranging discussion of the value of an education like the one offered by Saint Mary’s.

Secular and Spiritual

A number of the participants suggested that what gives Catholic liberal arts education its special power is the ability to draw on the secular and spiritual in the search for truth.

“Catholic higher education is at its core a spiritual practice,” said President Donahue, who has a long history of service in Catholic higher education, including at Georgetown University and the Graduate Theological Union. Monsignor Robert Sheeran, the former president of Seton Hall University, added that for him, “Teaching is a sacred profession.”

Brother Mark McVann, of the Theology and Religious Studies Department, provided a faculty perspective.  The seminar-style symposium gathered participants from Saint Mary’s and two special guests: University of San Diego President Mary Lyons and Monsignor Sheeran. From Saint Mary’s came President Donahue, Provost Beth Dobkin (the moderator), Brother Mark McVann, Professor Raina Leon and students Robby Tabor, William Besson, William Conable and Sarah Woolston.

The texts for the seminar were excerpts from The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman and from Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae. View the texts.

Faith and Science

One of the recurring themes in the discussion was the common perception that faith and  science, or empirical knowledge, are at odds. “Religion gets a bad rap” in this regard, Sheeran said, “partly because more than 50 percent of Americans believe that the universe was created in six days.”

But most of the participants argued that the perceived battle between faith and science is a misconception. In an age when researchers are questioning scientific theories on every scale, including what existed before the Big Bang, much of science hinges on faith, said physics major Conable—faith in theories that are so far unproven. Sheeran was more emphatic, arguing that “science is one of the avenues to God today.”

Education for the Greater Good

Lyon argued that the beauty of a liberal arts education is that it “allows us to cultivate compassion and empathy, and ideally put it into action.” She added that Saint Mary’s motto, “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve,” is “really about taking the Christian message seriously - that we love God and we love our neighbor.”

Leon, meanwhile, argued that a Catholic college should follow the lead of Pope John Paul II, who wrote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that “the Christian spirit of service to others for the promotion of social justice is of particular importance to each Catholic university.”

SMC student William Conable listens as Monsignor Robert Sheeran offers his thoughts on the subject.   Sheeran supported that idea, contending that “liberal arts education is a remedy for some very deeply set problems in our society: parochialism, social isolation, exploitation (economical or political), bigotry and fanaticism.”

Openness to Other Belief Systems

Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at UC Santa Barbara, joined the conversation to ask,How do you make a Catholic education equally vibrant to Protestants, Jews, Muslims, thoughtful atheists and fallen Catholics?”

In response, several non-Catholics on the panel admitted that they had joined Saint Mary’s College “with trepidation” but had found a community more interested in engaging great ideas through questions than in preaching doctrine. Dobkin added that although our “ideas and language come from the Catholic intellectual tradition, they can be shared by all.”

Values-Based Education

Professor Barbara McGraw joined in the discussion and said that, from her perspective,  values-based education gives us a chance to enter into the “ongoing search for the true and the good—a search that’s been going on for centuries.”

Senior physics major Robby Tabor agreed and offered an apt metaphor for the advantage of values-based education. “Any education can teach you to build a hammer. But you can use a hammer to build a house or to break one down,” he said. “That’s where a liberal arts education comes in. It tells you that we should use that hammer to build other houses.” In an age when the "hammer" could be a nuclear weapon, that’s a valuable perspective.

Is it Useful and Relevant?

President Jim Donahue speaks with an audience member after the symposium.When the question arose about whether a liberal arts education is useful in today’s world, where the push for technical and vocational education is strong, McGraw, who teaches in the School of Economics and Business Administration, suggested that practical considerations need not be at odds with a liberal arts education, saying: “If you inspire students to live out a real sense of purpose in the world through their vocation, all of this comes together. Your job can be your noble calling.”

And Brother Mark McVann presented an eloquent argument for a broader definition of usefulness. A liberal arts education, he said, is “a profound exercise in hope and in recognition of the dignity of persons and their right to learn so they, too, can become persons whose lives are based in hope. We need to raise their hopes above getting a good job.”

In the end, what emerged, sometimes haltingly, often eloquently, was a portrait of liberal arts education as a way of knowing that opens the door to our inner and outer worlds, preparing us to be the sort of leaders our present age demands, and a sense that a Catholic orientation prepares us to use those skills for the greater good and, in Dobkin’s words, “discover a life worth living.”   

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

View a photo gallery of the symposium.

Photos by Gina Halferty